Right to choose, right to die

Easter has seen a serious escalation in the rightwing moral offensive against progressive social gains. First we had Michael Howard telling Cosmopolitan magazine that he favoured reducing the time limit for abortion from 24 to 20 weeks - something had to be done to counter the current 'intolerable' situation whereby women, apparently, have a right "tantamount" to "abortion on demand" (April). Now we have Howard-supporter cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the pope's number one emissary in the UK, stepping into the breach with his front page interview in The Sunday Telegraph - claiming that the practice of abortion is akin to the eugenics programme of Hitler's Germany, if not the actual Nazi genocide of the Jews (March 27). This foetal 'genocide' is attributed to the 'promiscuous' and 'swinging' 1960s, in particular the 1967 Abortion Act. Self-evidently, it is not the left or even the liberal bourgeoisie which is setting the political agenda at the moment. Rather, it is the anti-abortionist, authoritarian right, with its 'right to life' rhetoric and supernatural mumbo-jumbo which endows a foetus - or a cluster of cells - with a social personality. And only six months ago Candy Udwin of the Socialist Workers Party's central committee reassured us that "it would be extremely difficult to encroach on existing rights" with regard to abortion - an attitude which displayed a criminal complacency. After all, it cannot be denied that cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, for one, has come out with all guns blazing, feeling that at last the wind is blowing in his direction. The cardinal told Telegraph readers that a "majority" of the British people were with him in being "uneasy" about the current law on abortion. Murphy-O'Connor hypocritically stated that with abortion "it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak", meaning that "human beings therefore become instruments in the hands of other human beings" - and, for him, "that way lies eugenics and we know from German history where that leads". But it is even worse than that, according to the cardinal: "We are already on that road," he ventured. "For what else is the termination of six million lives in the womb since the Abortion Act was introduced, and embryo selection on the basis of gender and genes?" At this point in the interview, the Telegraph journalist, Elizabeth Day, helpfully added by way of explanation: "The number of abortions performed since the 1967 act tallies almost exactly with the number of Jews, around six million, killed during the holocaust." Murphy-O'Connor concluded that, given the pending general election, he was perfectly justified in turning abortion into a "political debate" - the church should give a 'moral' lead on all matters, he added. In response to this putrid historical comparisons, we communists will redouble our efforts to defend and extend women's rights, including the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy - as early as possible, as late as necessary. Far from the 1967 Abortion Act being a 'step too far', as reactionaries like Howard and Murphy-O'Connor would have us believe, communists argue that it was inadequate, failing to enshrine a real right to free and legal abortion on demand. This should be the basic position of all those who call themselves socialist or communist. Yet, as we all know, George Galloway, obviously the most important figure within Respect, has a position on this issue which exactly coincides with that of cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. Maintaining unprincipled unity with Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain explains why comrade Udwin so readily and determinedly dismissed abortion as a non-issue. It also explains why in Respect the SWP majority bloc voted down our motion calling for abortion "as early as possible, as late as necessary". If Galloway is elected to serve as the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, what would he do about abortion? According to the SWP's Lindsey German, he should do as his individual conscience dictates - as is the practice in mainstream bourgeois parties. In other words he will be a 'pro-life' MP who promises to carry on attacking the rights of vulnerable women. The Right to Life UK website thoroughly approves of Galloway. It describes him in the following way: "Elected to parliament in 1987, since when he has consistently opposed abortion on demand and late abortions. He has also shown himself to be a courageous fighter against the use of the human embryo for experiments and against euthanasia. In 1990 he opposed clauses aimed at legalising abortion on demand, with one doctor needed only to certify that the pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks. He also voted against abortion up to birth on various grounds, including handicap. He is also against the use of the human embryo for experiments and human cloning "¦ He is completely opposed to euthanasia by omission and euthanasia by commission." Significantly, in the same Telegraph interview, Murphy-O'Connor also made a plea to "save the life" of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged American at the centre of an ugly legal and political 'right to life' row. Terri has been in a coma, or persistent vegetative state, since 1990, when a stroke starved her brain of oxygen, and the only thing keeping her alive has been a feeding tube. According to her doctors, there is no chance of recovery, and her husband, Michael, has requested that she be allowed to die - saying that it would have been her wish. Accordingly, a Florida circuit court judge ordered that the feeding tube be removed. However, misnamed 'supporters' of Terri Schiavo, including her parents and the Christian Defence Coalition, have launched a furious campaign to keep her hooked up indefinitely to the feeding machine - so much so that there have been regular, sometimes violent, protests by christian groups outside her Florida hospice, all militantly opposed to euthanasia. Of course, the 'friends' of Terri have an ally in the shape of fellow fundamentalist, George Bush, who got the Republican-dominated Congress to issue a subpoena designed to prevent the court-ordered removal of the feeding tube. However, much to the indignation of Terri's 'supporters' and the CDC, the subpoena has not been acted upon. In what amounts to a family as well as a legal-political tussle over governmental powers and rights, Jeb Bush - the governor of Florida and George Bush's brother - has declared that the Florida state court order overrides the federal government subpoena and thus he is prevented from taking Terri into the "protective custody" of the state. In what would be astonishing news to Terri's husband or doctors, the CDC's Paul O'Donnell - described as a "spiritual adviser" to Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler - claims to have undergone some sort of communication with Terri: "She's alert, she's awake and she's fighting for her life," he claimed. "Everyone is willing to write this woman's obituary except one person, and that's Terri Schiavo." Obviously, for Paul O'Donnell and George Bush the struggle to defend Terri Schiavo's 'right to life' is just part of their overall 'pro-life' agenda - which is premised on an implacable hostility to abortion rights, gay marriage, IVF, stem-cell research, etc. For communists, the appropriation of Terri Schiavo's case by the christian right is monstrous. Patently, the idea that the CDC or George Bush have her best interests at heart is quite risible. She is just a convenient stick with which to beat the other America they so hate - an America which is secular, scientific, progressive and socially tolerant. But the sight of Terri Schiavo starving to death no doubt imposes unnecessary stress upon husband, doctors and attendants, who have to watch her waste away before their very eyes. Clearly, there is a degree of complexity involved here - as far as can be made out, nobody knows what Terri's exact wish might have been, despite O'Donnell's distasteful confidence on this matter. But surely the only truly compassionate and humane alternative to slow death (whether by starvation or accumulated illnesses over the years) is to allow Terri Schiavo to die quickly and painlessly. This is not "Nazism", as stupidly, and hysterically, claimed by the 'pro-lifers', but a recognition that the quality of life is just as important as its quantity, or duration. Everyone should have the greatest possible degree of conscious choice when it comes to the manner of their dying, just as they should have control over their own life process. In the case of Terri Schiavo that obviously means allowing her husband and doctors to make that choice on her behalf. Unlike George Galloway and the catholic church, we support voluntary euthanasia, or the 'right to die'. As the CPGB draft programme insists, "The comfort and dignity of the dying must be ensured at all times. Euthanasia and disposal of the body after death should be carried out according to the wishes of the individual" (section 3,12 - however, some reordering is called for here, in my view, since this 'immediate demand' appears under the 'Pensioners and the elderly' heading, when obviously it is a general demand, applicable to all, old or otherwise). Communists concur with the demands of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which are: "Our vision is for everyone to be guaranteed choice and dignity at the end of their life, to help take away the fear of the process of dying. Palliative care and medical treatment should be patient-led and include a legal right to maximum pain control, to help ease suffering. We want end-of-life decision-making to be open and honest, and firmly under the control of the patient. We want people with terminal illnesses to be able to ask for medical help to die within proper legal safeguards, to remove the conditions which give rise to unchecked euthanasia and 'mercy killings'" (www.ves.org.uk). Communists support the right to choose - whether of a woman in relation to her pregnancy or of a severely ill person in relation to the continuation of their own life. Eddie Ford